It was natural then, that I set out to cover the history of the pub. I've been going through those front doors practically my entire life. Through family dinners, hockey team celebrations, hockey pool draft nights, dates, and eveningss where its just somewhere comfortable to go, Whispers is easily one of my favorite spots to be, And again, not that I'm that much of a barfly, but I've been in there enough times to know the layout of the place like the back of my hand - where every photo is and what its of. But as a history-curious guy, I've always wanted to explore the history of the building more. My interest was picqued years ago when I noticed that, hey, wait a minute, if you look at it from the street, it clearly used to be a house. They when you think about the interior, well sure, you can imagine it being a house! When they opened up the second floor a couple of years ago, you almost felt like you were heading up to the bedrooms!
So with this blog, I now have a completely valid excuse to really delve into the the past, and find out the whole back story of the pub. I knew bits and pieces already, but it was really worth digging deep in to records at the land registry office and the city archives.
To start off, Westboro itself started life essentially as a small village supporting the local mill located by where Westboro Beach now exists. The village was even named "Skead's Mill", after its owner. After the mill closed (and later burned) in the 1880s it took a while for the area to grow. Thanks to the arrival of the trains, and in particular the streetcar line to Britannia, Westboro became a desirable location for Ottawans to live and commute. Once the automobile arrived, there was no looking back.
By 1910 the Westboro population was just around the 1,000 mark, and many of the former farmers were finding that they could sell their property for many times what it was worth only twenty years prior. Some took it upon themselves and created subdivisions of their own. Others sold it off in blocks, and real estate prospectors bought up land as investments. F.X. Ladouceur was one such prospector, and I detailed his 1909 "Mansfield Park" plan in the history of Tweedsmuir Avenue article.
|Scan of the first page of the original
sale deed for lot 6, Richmond Road.
In February of 1911, a second, larger mortgage was taken out from a Mrs. Marie Davieau for $1,050, for the construction of the house.
The two-storey, wood-frame house was completed quickly. The Nepean Township assessor visited on April 21st and noted that the family was occupying the home. They had also made it just in time for the 1911 Census of Canada, which was taken on June 1st.
The value of the property, including the new house, was assessed at just $500 in April of 1911. Click below to see a scan from the original assessor's rollbook, listing the newly built home on lot 6:
|Mary & William Larkin
Signalling that work was progressing on the house, the value had increased to $600 in 1912, and then once it was bricked in 1914, had increased all the way up to $1,800.
|1915 Fire Insurance Plan showing the
structure of the Larkin house.
The house appears to have been initially designed as a duplex, the dotted line in the 1915 fire insurance plan (at right) indicates a partition wall. As well, prior to housing a business, the building had two civic addresses (at the time, #514 and 516 Richmond Road).
It was about 1919 that William Larkin added on a small addition to one half of the front of the house, with the intention of opening a small shop (the change is visible when contrasting the 1915 and 1922 fire insurance plans, see below).
By mid-1919, the first evidence of a business in the building shows up, and that the Larkins had begun operating a small grocery store out of their home. Home construction had slowed due to the first world war, and the Larkins perhaps saw running a grocery shop as a way to manage during the difficult financial times. This new business endeavour was first noted in the pages of the Ottawa City Directory of 1919, in the listing of residents of the Ottawa suburb of Westboro:
|1919 Might's Ottawa City Directory
The 1922 fire insurance plan shows the vastness of the area at the time, and the future Whisper's building was the only structure at the intersection of Tweedsmuir (by then known as Strathcona) and Richmond Road.
The civic number of the building changed in the mid-20's as well, and was given the number 9 Richmond Road for the business, and 11 Richmond Road for the residence portion (the numbering was based on Richmond Road starting at Tweedsmuir, which was the eastern border of Westboro. Prior to Canada Post stepping in and enforcing addressing rules in the early 40's, villages could basically number their own buildings as they wished. So Westboro ignored the portion of Richmond Road to the east, which also had a 9 & 11 Richmond Road just east of Island Park Drive, in the village of what was known as "Ottawa West". Confusing to say the least).
|Matt Larkin, manager of
"Matt's Place" (1929-1940)
|1937 Ottawa City Directory listing
for Richmond Road in Westboro,
showing Matt's Place at 9 Richmond.
|Daniel and Fleur-Ange Larkin in front
of the store, circa late-1930s. This photo
gives the best view of the full front
window of the store.
|Fleur-Ange (and Mary Larkin at the left
edge), late 1930s. Visible in this photo is
the name "Matt's Place" behind Fleur-Ange
in the window, as well as the small porch
that existed next to the 1919 front addition.
The Monsour's daughter Carolyn was born soon after, and so many years later recalled for me the details of the layout of the house. The ground floor was divided in two halves. The west half was the living and dining room for the residence (this would be the bar area of Whisper's today). The east half was entered through a door on the side of the small front addition. The Monsours operated a long lunch counter along the east wall of the store (where the huge TV screen now hangs), where they served burgers, hot dogs and fries to hungry customers. On the left side of the store portion was a long wall where they sold grocery items. The front window was filled with fruit, vegetables and penny candies. Carolyn recalled that her Dad was very generous with the neighbourhood children, giving the children free treats when they came to the shop with their parents, under the adage that "if you are good to the children, it will make the parents come back to the store".
The staircase to upstairs was in the same location it is now, and upstairs were the four bedrooms, which Carolyn lamented not having taken the opportunity to have a nostalgic look at when lunching at Whispers a few years ago (renovations within the last few years has now opened up the upstairs as additional restaurant space - very cozily done too, I might add).
In 1942, with the new post office requirements, the store was given the number it still has today, #249 Richmond Road (the residence portion was given #251). The Monsours lived upstairs, and for a while had Mrs Monsour's parents living with them as well.
After a couple of years, George Monsour purchased the property outright from the estate of Bessie Dowling, who had died in 1939. The Monsours paid $2,700 on January 19th, 1943.
|Ottawa Citizen, December 30, 1944
|1948 Fire Insurance Plan, again showing the north side of Richmond
between Athlone (at left) and Tweedsmuir.
|George Monsour and daughter Carolyn
outside their store, mid-late 1940s.
|The front window of the Westboro
|George Monsour inside the front window
of the Westboro Confectionery
|George Monsour inside the window at a different date
The Monsours continued to operate the Westboro Confectionery until the late 1950's. George Monsour began to feel unwell, and so in 1958 the family decided to lease out the business and residence. Sadly, George passed away a short time later in August of 1961.
On October 1st, 1958, the Monsours leased the property to Rizk (Ray) and Joseph Naufal. It was a 10-year lease, with rent at $250/month for the first year and $275/month for years two through nine. The rent was split $150/month for the shop (which increased to $175/month after the first year), plus $100/month for the residence portion of the house. The Naufals moved in upstairs, and kept the name Westboro Confectionery.
In July of 1968, Mary Monsour was listed as having sold the business to Helen Mains for $34,000. Mains immediately leased out the building to a Muriel Morrison, commencing December 1st on a 5-year lease at $450 per month to operate a "restaurant and coffee bar", but with the curious restriction: "...and the premises known as 251 Richmond will not during the term be at any time used for any other purpose than that of five rental units". This indicates that the residential living space upstairs and on the west side of the main floor was (or at least was intended to be) rented out in rooming-house style.
Morrison got out of the lease after six months (for unknown reasons) and starting June 1st, 1969, the premises were rented to Hal B. Ellis, who opened the "Ellis Coffee Bar". The four-and-a-half year lease was for $350 per month.
In May of 1972 Helen Mains, who by this time had moved to St. Catharines, sold the building to Rui De Lima and Emircio Garcia for $55,000. The pair had recently acquired the building next door at 255 Richmond and opened the Lusitania Auto Body Shop in 1970. The Ellis Coffee Bar continued to operate through most of the 1970s. I could track down nothing on Ellis or the Coffee Bar.
|The front table at Sagres (from "The Key Ottawa/Hull 1979")
|Ottawa Journal - June 7, 1979
|Ottawa Journal - December 13, 1979
Sagres continued to operate until closing sometime in either late 1980 or early 1981. The business (under the name Sagres Restaurant Inc.) was purchased by Mike Kelly in July of 1981 for $75,000 and the restaurant re-opened as "Whispers".
|Ottawa Citizen, October 2, 1981
In 1987, the business was sold to Don Cogan. I brought my camera in to Whispers last week and took a few photos of some photos from the late 1980's (pre-renovation) which hang on the walls of Whispers currently. They appear below:
In September of 1992, a site plan control was passed by the City of Ottawa, allowing for the expansion of the Whispers restaurant. The renovation allowed for the front expansion of the building, creating more seating area along the west side and front of the restaurant. The new footprint of the building is best shown in this aerial photo below from 2007:
|Aerial photo (from 2007) showing the new Whispers
additions in 1992.
Don Cogan brought in a co-owner in November of 2008 when long-time staff member Stacy Rennick bought in to Whispers.
On June 24th, 2011, fans of Whispers got a scare when fire crews were called to the restaurant around 8 in the morning. I came down Tweedsmuir that morning, and saw that Richmond Road was closed off due to a fire - at Whispers! Luckily it was caught early enough, and was contained to the roof and an upper floor wall. The cause of the fire was attributed to some neon lights that had recently been repaired.
|June 24, 2011 - my cell phone snapped this photo through the misty
morning air, soon after the fire trucks had arrived on scene.
|A current view of the front facade (from Whispers' website)
Whispers is entrenched as hub of the community - a place not only where people meet, but where events like book launches and concerts are held; where a hockey team can find a sponsor; a place, as one reviewer on Yelp said "as close as you're probably going to get to Cheers, the notorious Boston bar, in Ottawa". Even though over time the usage of the building has changed, the common thread through the years has been its tie-in to the neighbourhood. I love the fact that Carolyn Monsour shared a story about being recognized from the Westboro Confectionery last year by a former Tweedsmuir Avenue resident - impressive as the Monsours had left the store 57 years ago in 1958. I love the fact that the Larkin family still gets together on most St. Patrick's Days, and has a drink inside the home that their family patriarch William Larkin built over 100 years ago. And I love the fact that Whispers is still going strong, despite the changing neighbourhood, increased costs, higher taxes, increased competition, and all the other stuff that in many urban centres has killed off the good old fashioned neighbourhood pub.
Special thanks to Dan Larkin, Pat Larkin and Carolyn Monsour for all their help in sharing photographs, stories and memories of 249 Richmond Road.